Documents Detail Histories of
Once Secret Spy Units
A National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book
Edited by Jeffrey T. Richelson
May 23, 2001
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A key part of the Central Intelligence Agency’s mission, since its creation in 1947, has been the conduct of human intelligence operations – which have included the recruitment of foreign nationals to conduct espionage as well the debriefing of defectors and other individuals with access to information of value. The primary  focus of such HUMINT operations has been strategic – the collection of information relevant to national policymakers.

    Throughout the Cold War and beyond, the United States has conducted a second set of HUMINT operations – those carried out by its military services and the Department of Defense. Each of the three major military services established and disestablished organizations to recruit spies and debrief individuals of interest in order to gather information about foreign weapons systems, doctrine, and other matters of interest to military officials.

    Thus, in 1966, the Navy established a covert unit, designated the Naval Field Operations Support Group (NFOSG) – also known as Task Force 157. In 1977 it was disestablished. In 1981, in the aftermath of the Iranian crisis, the U.S. Army established the Intelligence Support Activity to provide clandestine intelligence and conduct covert operations  in support of military operations. In 1989, the designation ISA was terminated, and responsibility for the unit transferred to the U.S. Special Operations Command. The former ISA, known by the codename CENTRA SPIKE in 1993, played an important role in the hunt for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar – as detailed in Mark Bowden’s recent book, Killing Pablo.

    The significance attached to HUMINT operations have varied between the services, and within some of the services over time. Only the Army maintained a consistently high-level of interest in HUMINT throughout the Cold War.

    When the Defense Attache Service, bringing all the military service attaches together, was established in 1965, and placed under the Defense Intelligence Agency, it gave DIA a significant HUMINT role. While the attaches have primarily been overt collectors of open source information, they have also engaged in covert collection operations.

    In 1993, DCI James Woolsey and Deputy Defense Secretary William Perry decided to establish a Defense HUMINT Service (DHS), under the supervision of DIA, that would absorb the human intelligence efforts of the services. It was a move strenuously opposed by the Army – which had the most to lose – but was fully implemented  by the end of 1996.

    During that period, DoD HUMINT activities became news due to incidents involving U.S. attache operations in China. On July 28, 1995 two attaches stationed in Hong Kong were apprehended and accused of spying on restricted military zones along the southeastern coast of China. (see Document 20) In  January 1996 Lt. Col. Bradley Gerdes, the U.S. assistant military attache in Beijing, along with a Japanese military attache were stopped near a military area on Hainan Island, after allegedly sneaking into a military airport near the headquarters of the South China Fleet. That same month, other DHS officers, based in Tuzla, were gathering and analyzing information on the warring Muslim, Croat, and Serb communities in Bosnia and their leaders. The DHS was responsible for reporting any immediate threats to U.S. and NATO troops.

    The documents that make up this briefing book provide a window into the creation, evolution and (in some cases) abolition of a number of military service/DoD human intelligence organizations, the product of their activities, and the controversies that have occurred over the last several decades. 

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Document 1
Paul H. Nitze, "Instructions for the coordination and control of the Navy's clandestine intelligence collection program," December 7, 1965. Top Secret, 5 pp.
The U.S. Navy had conducted clandestine human intelligence operations during the 1930s and World War II. By the mid-1960s the Navy, however, was largely out of the clandestine HUMINT business. Then, in 1965, Admiral Rufus Taylor asked Thomas Duval and Thomas Saunders to set up a Navy HUMINT program. Despite some concern by senior Navy officers about the "flap potential," their proposal was approved - resulting in this memorandum from Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze. The memorandum provides a rationale for the creation of a new HUMINT organzation, relevant definitions, and establishes the responsibilities of senior officials. With regard to security, the memo mandates that very existence of the program be classified Secret.

    Nitze's memo would lead to the establishment, in 1966, of the Naval Field Operations Support Group (NFOSG) to conduct clandestine HUMINT operations. It would soon be given an alternative designation - Task Force 157 - by which it would become more commonly known.

Document 2
History of the Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence, July - December 1967, n.d. Secret, 22 pp.
This portion of the history of the Air Force's Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence for the last half of 1967 focuses on the activities of the 1127th USAF Field Activities Group - the Air Force unit responsible for conducting human intelligence operations.

    The history discusses several organizational matters - such as the creation of the Washington Field Activities Support Center to coordinate military HUMINT activiites - as well as a number of operational programs. The programs included SENTINEL SHOTGUN, the provision of U.S. Air Force crews for Soviet aircraft entering or departing the United States. That program resulted in the production of fifteen intelligence reports. Another, MOON DUST, involved the collection of man-made material deorbited from space.

Document 3a
History of Navy HUMINT Program (Human Source Intelligence) 1973, n.d. Secret, 5 pp.
Document 3b
History of Navy HUMINT Program (Human Source Intelligence) 1974, n.d. Secret, 6 pp.
These two histories provide some specifics about the intelligence collection activities of Task Force 157. They provide information on the number of intelligence reports produced, creation and disestablishment of field units, the task force's role in maritime surveillance, its production of ground-level photographs of Soviet naval vessels, and its collection of scientific and technical intelligence.
Document 4
Donald Nielsen, Commander, Task Force 157, To Director of Naval Intelligence, Bobby Ray Inman, December 31, 1975 w/attached memo, 6 pp.
The memo attached to the letter is a "decision reclama"—an appeal from Donald Nielsen, Task Force 157's commander, to Director of Naval Intelligence Inman that Inman reverse his decision to offer to disestablish the task force as a means of complying with Department of Defense-mandated budget cuts. Explanations for Inman's willingness to abolish the task force have ranged from being denied access to information about TF 157 operations when he served with the Pacific Fleet to an aversion to the scandal potential of HUMINT operations. The reclama both disputed that some of the expected benefits of disestablishing the task force would actually be attained and suggested a number of negative consequences that would follow from disestablishment.

    The covering letter represents a personal appeal from Nielsen and a reflection of the belief that when Inman assumed the position of DNI, he intended to close down the task force. Thus, Nielsen writes that, "You came to your job preceded by the information that you would soon see that TF 157 was wiped out. Your initial protestations to the contrary were accepted at face value, but your actions in the intervening year have belied your words."

Document 5
Memorandum for Deputy Secretary of Defense Ellsworth, Subj: Navy Program for Clandestine Intelligence Collection; disestablishment of -- INFORMATION MEMORANDUM, July 20, 1976. Top Secret, 1 p.
This memo informed Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Ellsworth, that Task Force 157 would cease operations on September 30, 1977 or earlier. It also reveals that attempts to turn a significant portion of the task force's operations over to the CIA failed - ostensibly due to congressionally imposed restrictions, but there was also, according to some CIA officials, agreement in the Directorate of Operations that they should not absorb the task force in any case.

    A disestablishment committee distributed task force projects among the CIA, DIA, Army, Air Force, and Task Force 168 - an organization established in 1969 to provide intelligence support to the fleet and conducted overt HUMINT operations. The task force's case officers were told to destroy all records of their employment by the Navy and deny that the task force ever existed.1

Document 6
Lt. Gen. Philip C. Gast, Director of Operations, Joint Staff. Memorandum for Director, Defense Intelligence  Agency, Subject: Intelligence Capability, December 10, 1980. Top Secret, 2 pp.
The seizure of the U.S. embassy in Iran in November 1979 established formidable requirements for intelligence to support a rescue mission. This memo notes the need for human intelligence to provide some of the required information as well as the inability of either the services or the Defense Department to provide such information.

    An ad hoc organization, the Field Operations Group had been established in 1980 to provide HUMINT support to those planning a possible second rescue attempt. In 1981, it would be transformed into a permanent organization - the Army Intelligence Support Activity (ISA). ISA would conduct both human intelligence operations as well as SIGINT operations, the latter usually from aircraft. 

Document 7
Frank C. Carlucci, Memorandum to the Deputy Under Secretary for Policy, May 26, 1982, 1 p.
By spring 1982, the Intelligence Support Activity found itself under attack for support to former Special Forces Lt. Col. Bo Gritz, who had organized a private POW rescue mission, and other activities that some considered questionable. Such concerns led to a very critical review of the organization by the Defense Department's Inspector General.

    After reading the report Deputy Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci sent this memo to Richard Stillwell, the Deputy Under Secretary for Policy, in which he characterized ISA as "uncoordinated and uncontrolled." He also ordered the termination of all ISA activities within 30 days, but also offered ISA a possibility of a reprieve if a satisfactory plan for continued operations could be produced. 

Document 8
Charter of U.S. Army Intelligence Support Activity, circa 1983, 9 pp.
One of the eventual results of the DoD Inspector General's critique of ISA was the production of a charter to guide and constrain ISA activities. The charter established ISA as an organization to be employed only when there were no other available resources to carry out a mission, and specified that "USAISA activities, especially those involving U.S. persons, will be pursued in a responsible manner that is consistent with the Constitution and respectful of the principles upon which the United States was founded." The charter establishes authority over ISA operations with regard to HUMINT, SIGINT, and covert action operations.
Document 9
AFISR 23-2, Air Force Special Activities Center (AFSAC), December 20, 1984, 8 pp.
By 1984, the 1127th Field Activities Group had become the Air Force Special Activities Center (AFSAC), a subordinate element of the Air Force Intelligence Service. This regulation specifies the organizational structure as well as peacetime and wartime missions of the AFSAC and its divisions.
Document 10
902nd Military Intelligence Group, Subject: After Action Report for Operation CANVAS SHIELD, July 30, 1985. Secret, 10 pp.
CANVAS SHIELD was an operational security assessment of GRAZING LAWN, an aerial intelligence collection operation conducted from Honduras. Participating in the operation were four members of ISA's SIGINT component. The assessment explored the possibility that GRAZING LAWN personnel could be ambushed while traveling to or from the Tegulcigalpa airfield, examined newspapers and reviews of radio and television for mention of ISA activity, and visited bars and restaurants to determine if GRAZING LAWN personnel had been noticed in any significant way. 
Document 11
ISA, Brief History of Unit, 1986. Secret, 2 pp.
This document provides key data on the creation and evolution of the Intelligence Support Activity. In particular, it explains how the Field Operations Group was formed to provide intelligence support for a possible second rescue mission in Iran, its transformation into ISA, and the approval of an ISA charter in July 1983.
Document 12a
ISA, United States Army Intelligence Support Activity, 1986 Historical Report, n.d. Secret, 23 pp.
Document 12b
ISA, United States Army Intelligence Support Activity, 1987 Historical Report, n.d. Secret, 23 pp.
These histories provide information on the organizational evolution, exercises, and operations of ISA for 1986 and 1987. Organizationally ISA consisted of a number of headquarters directorates (including intelligence and operations) and a number of operational squadrons. Exercises, with codenames such as POWERFUL GAZE, QUIZ ICING, and POPULAR FOREST tested ISA's ability to provide intelligence support to counter-terrorist and conventional forces. Operations (requested or approved) included those in Latin America and the Middle East. The 1987 history in particular demonstrates the prolonged approval process for ISA operations. The histories also document ISA's intelligence production in support of its operations.
Document 13
Commander 500th MI Group, Subj: [deleted]/Guerrilla Use of Stinger Missiles and Their Effect on Soviet Tactics in AF, circa 1987, 3 pp.
While ISA was responsible for intelligence support to special operations and counter-terrorism, more traditional Army HUMINT operations were conducted by the U.S. Army's Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM). Among INSCOM's human intelligence components was the 500th Military Intelligence Group, located at Camp Zama, Japan. 

    In 1986, President Reagan approved a proposal to have the CIA supply the Afghan resistance with Stinger missiles. This report describes how the resistance's use of those missiles affected Soviet air operations.

Document 14
Commander, USAISA, Subject: Termination of USAISA and "GRANTOR SHADOW," March 31, 1989. Secret, 2 pp.
On several occasions after 1985 the commander of the Intelligence Support Activity requested that the organization be disestablished. At least on one occasion, the request was a result of frustration with the ISA approval and coordination process - that involved several CIA, DoD, and Army officials.

    This 1989 memo terminates the use of the terms ISA and "GRANTOR SHADOW" - the later being the current designation of the special access program that protected information about ISA (previously it was known as ROYAL CAPE). The memo does not abolish ISA, however. According to several reports, responsibility for ISA was transferred to the U.S. Special Operations Command, given a new name (which is changed every two years) and new special access program designation (which is changed every six months).

Document 15
Duane P. Andrews, Assistant Secretary of Defense, C3I, Memorandum for Director, Defense Intelligence Agency, Subject: Strengthening Defense Intelligence -- DIA HUMINT Plan, August 6, 1991. Secret, 2 pp.
In the early 1990s, partially under pressure from Congressional oversight committees, the Defense Department sought to streamline military service and DoD intelligence operations - including HUMINT operations. This memo would be the first step in moving toward a centralized Defense HUMINT structure. It specifies development of a plan under which the military services would continue to conduct HUMINT activities but a DoD HUMINT manager would exercise control over tasking and how the military services satisfied that tasking - although not managing day-to-day operations.
Document 16
Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence [ODCSI], Annual Historical Review, 1 October 1992 to 30 September 1993, n.d. Secret, 32 pp.
Of all the military services, the Army offered the strongest objections to any restructuring of Defense HUMINT. Part of this portion of the Army ODCSI history specifies the office's view of the centralization activities and its objection to centralization that did not allow service HUMINT collectors to determine how to satisfy tasking from DoD.

    Another part of this document excerpt focuses on the intelligence reports produced as a result of Army HUMINT activities. Several of the reports concerned atrocities committed against Bosnian Moslems by Serb forces. Other topics included Cuban biological warfare capacity and signals intelligence, Russian ICBM development, and the role of Panamanian air cargo companies in narcotics trafficking.

Document 17
DoD Directive 5200.37, Subject: Centralized Management of Department of Defense Human Intelligence (HUMINT) Operations, December 18, 1992. Unclassified, 4 pp.
This directive replaced the 1987 directive on DoD HUMINT operations. It named the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency as DoD HUMINT manager. The directive ordered the consolidation of the HUMINT activities of DoD, the military services, and the unified and specified commands into joint operating bases. Most importantly, it required the military service organizations to receive and implement HUMINT tasking from DIA without alteration. 
Document 18
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, C3I, Plan for Consolidation of Defense HUMINT, 1993, Secret, 11 pp.
This plan was developed in response to the agreement between DCI James Woolsey and Deputy Defense Secretary William Perry to establish a Defense Department organization to absorb the HUMINT operations of the military services. The plan notes that its purpose was to "preserve the Department's ability to manage HUMINT under the constraints of diminishing resources while more rapidly and efficiently focusing the HUMINT elements of the Department on targets worldwide." It instructed the DIA Director to establish, during the 1994 fiscal year, a Defense HUMINT Service (DHS) to incorporate DoD and military service HUMINT operations (excluding non-sensitive, overt, tactical HUMINT activities).
Document 19
William Perry, Subject: Consolidation of Defense HUMINT, November 2, 1993. Unclassified, 1 p.
In this memorandum Deputy Secretary of Defense William Perry approves the provisions of the Plan for the Consolidation of Defense HUMINT. It directs the Assistant Secretary of Defense (C3I) to "take the actions necessary to effect the consolidation of Defense HUMINT by Fiscal Year 1997." The DHS would be established on a provisional basis on April 1, 1994. By October 1995, it had over 2,000 personnel stationed in over 100 locations. By 1996, DHS had completed absorbing the HUMINT efforts of the military services.
Document 20
DoD, [deleted] PLA Reaction to Attache Detention and Current Status of the Sino-U.S. Relationship, August 4, 1995. Confidential, 4 pp.
This information report, probably transmitted by the U.S. Defense Attache Office in Beijing concerns the detention of Col. Joseph Wei Chan and Capt. Dwayne Howard Florenzie, attaches assigned to the U.S. Consulate General’s office Hong Kong. They had been apprehended on July 28, 1995, and charged with sneaking into restricted areas and “illegally acquiring military intelligence by photographing and videotaping” the areas. They had entered China on July 23 to consult with officials at the US Embassy in Beijing and the Consulate General in Guangzhou. Reportedly, their actual objective was the monitoring of ongoing Chinese military exercises north of Taiwan.
Document 21
DoD, [deleted] COSTIND Company Update, December  21, 1995, Confidential, 4 pp.
This intelligence information report, probably based on reporting by the Defense Attache in Beijing, provides information on one of the enterprises of COSTIND - the Commission of Science, Technology, Industry for National Defense, a key PRC government institution that acquires both technology and scientific and technical intelligence.

Additional Documents

For more examples of DoD HUMINT documents see the National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book, "The Death Squad Protection Act."


Steven Emerson, Secret Warriors: Inside the Covert Military Operations of the Reagan Era (New York: Putnam, 1988).

Jeffrey Richelson, "Task Force 157: The US Navy's Secret Intelligence Service, 1966-1977," Intelligence and National Security, 11, 1 (January 1996): 106-145.

Jeffrey Richelson, "From MONARCH EAGLE to MODERN AGE: The
Consolidation of Defense HUMINT," International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 10, 2 (Summer 1997): 131-164.

Jeffrey Richelson, "'Truth Conquers All Chains': The U.S. Army Intelligence Support Activity, 1981-1989," International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 12, 2 (Summer 1999): 168-200.


1.  Nancy Feinstein and Christopher Simpson, "The Spies Who are Left Out in the Cold," Inquiry, November 28, 1981, pp.11-12; Interview with former TF 157 member.